May 17, 2022 | excerpt from The Bulldozer in the Garden: Earthmoving & Autonomous Futures
In the U.S., the extraction of coal largely shifted from shaft mining to surface mining in the 1960s. This coincided with a rising economy and continued with growing energy supply and security needs. A U.S. Energy Information Administration consumption chart shows that between 1960 and 2008 the amount of coal used for energy production nearly tripled.¹ Advancements in earthmoving equipment motivated an embrace of surface mining, also known as “mountaintop removal.” For the sake of efficiency, expense, and safety, many mining companies began to blast and bulldoze their way to underground coal seams, which are found in horizontal deposits within the layers of the earth. While shaft mines still operate around the world, miners who may have once worked deep underground by flickering headlamps, emerging after long shifts coated in black dust, their lungs lined with the same blackness, now find themselves operating bulldozers. Since the 1990s, half of Appalachian coal — a region that produces 26% of the U.S. supply — has come from this type of extraction.²
This movement of the earth depends on an externalized landscape, that is, one determined by official documents or voices.³ And while the suffix of “earthmoving” might imply temporary relocation, here the word serves to obscure a process much less subtle. Through demolition and redistribution, entire ridges are flattened, gouged, and broken; mountainous topography mutilated into lumpy plateaus. Valleys and streams are buried, while local farmland, drinking water, air quality, and ecosystems are polluted. It is a lingering cruelty that results in severe health impacts in mining communities, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, birth defects, and an estimated 1,200 excess deaths per year when compared with other parts of the Appalachian region.⁴
Integral to this technique is the D11 bulldozer. A reliable workhorse, its first task is to remove “overburden,” the surface landscape and geological layers resting above the vein of coal to be mined, transported, and commodified. Mining companies use teams of the machines along with massive dragline excavators and fleets of dump trucks.⁵ The video of Black Thunder shows them working in neat lines, like agricultural laborers in a field, but with a surreal mechanization in size and autonomy — metallic behemoths in the dirt reflective of a dystopian thriller. The overburden, its terminology implying that it is an inconvenient barrier, is chewed up and spit out.
The carbon dioxide emitted from the process of mining, along with the later combustion of the coal, contributes to another devastating force: global warming. And while the relationship between earthmoving and energy may at first appear foreign, Black Thunder and coal mines across the nation provide a haunting illustration. It is in examples like this, which reorient the landscape and resources that surround entire communi-ties and ecosystems, that an industry achieves its name in the most literal sense: moving Earth. ●
“Coal Explained,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed April 13, 2022.; The number jumped from 400 million tons per year to over 1,100 million tons. Today, it has fallen closer to 1960s levels, despite attempts by some to reinvigorate “clean coal.” But in a March 2022 issue of the trade journal, Coal Age, the spokesperson for the National Mining Association, Conor Bernstein, argued that amid energy tensions with Russia, producers and policymakers should, “Beware of eliminating fossil fuel supply and generating options…” and to, “produce, manufacture, build and export as much as we can to shore up U.S. energy security,”; Conor Bernstein, “ Re-embrace American Energy Abundance,” Coal Age, March 2022.
Jedediah Purdy, “The Violent Remaking of Appalachia,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2016; Appalachian is a region composed primarily of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Author and environmentalist Rob Nixon speaks of two conceptions for landscapes: official and vernacular.; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).